Marianne Chan is the author of All Heathens. She grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, and Lansing, Michigan. Her poems have appeared in West Branch, The Journal, Poetry Northwest, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She serves as poetry editor at Split Lip Magazine.
In this special Episode #132 of The Blood-Jet Writing Hour, we interview not one but two poets who happen to be in loving partnership with each other. Take a listen to this episode where poets Kazumi Chin and Michelle Lin discuss what it is like to begin and move through literary careers together, navigating romantic and professional jealousy, and what it means to build stronger communities together.
Kazumi Chin’s first poetry collection, Having a Coke with Godzilla, was published in 2017 by Sibling Rivalry Press. Their most recent work can be found in Underblong, AAWW’s the Margins, and in AALR’s Book of Curses. They are the co-organizer and host of Kearny Street Workshop’s key reading series and currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at UC Davis.
Michelle Lin is a poet, community arts organizer, and author of A House Made of Water from Sibling Rivalry Press. She is a Kundiman fellow, co-organizer for Kearny Street Workshop’s reading series, and fundraising manager for RYSE Center in Richmond, California, a social justice youth center. You can follow her @sadwitheyebrows.
MT Vallarta is a poet and Ph.D. candidate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, where they study feminist theory, queer theory, and Filipinx poetics. Their work is published in Nat. Brut, Rabbit Catastrophe Press, Broadly, Apogee Journal, Weird Sister, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. They were raised and live in Los Angeles, CA.
Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, The Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom. He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle’s DESTROYER.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.
He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and kids. He teaches at Columbia University.
He can be kind of hard to reach, but he still loves you.
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We’re kicking off National Poetry Month a few days early with an episode with Erika Ayón! Rachelle and Erika talk about Los Angeles, the color and fruit orange, and migration. Tune in!
Erika Ayón emigrated from Mexico when she was five years old and grew up in South Central, Los Angeles. She attended UCLA and graduated with a B.A. in English. In 2009 she was selected as a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow. In 2014 her poem “Hibiscus Skies,” was selected as a top ten poem from the Poetry in the Windows VI project sponsored by the Arroyo Arts Collective. Erika has taught poetry to middle and high school students across Los Angeles. She was a 2016-2017 Community Literature Initiative Scholar. Her debut collection of poetry Orange Lady was published by World Stage Press in March 2018. Available at http://www.worldstagepress.org/product/orange-lady. Erika currently resides in the San Fernando Valley where she lives with her husband and two cats.
Episode #123: John Jennings, illustrator and co-adaptor of Octavia Butler’s KINDRED
John Jennings is Professor, Media and Cultural Studies, University of California, Riverside. His work centers around intersectional narratives regarding identity politics and popular media. Jennings is co-editor of the Eisner Award-winning essay collection The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art and co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem. He is co-founder and organizer of the MLK NorCal’s Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco and also SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comix Expo at the Ohio State University. Jennings sits on the editorial advisory boards for The Black Scholar and the new Ohio State Press imprint New Suns: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Speculative.
Episode #122: Lilliam Rivera, author of THE EDUCATION OF MARGOT SANCHEZ!
Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, a contemporary young adult novel forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on February 21, 2017.
She is a 2016 Pushcart Prize winner and a 2015 Clarion alumni with a Leonard Pung Memorial Scholarship. She has been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story “Death Defiant Bomba” received honorable mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, selected by author Nathan Englander. Lilliam was also a finalist for AWP’s 2014 WC&C Scholarship Competition.
Lilliam’s work has appeared in Tin House, Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Times, Latina, USA Today, Cosmo for Latinas, Sundog Lit, Midnight Breakfast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Rumpus.net, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
She hosts a monthly literary radio show, Literary Soundtrack, on RadioSombra.org. Past guests have included Laila Lalami, Victor LaValle, Matt Johnson, Sonia Manzano, Azar Nafisi, among others. She’s also moderated panels for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, PEN Center USA and more.
Lilliam is represented by Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary Agency. She lives in Los Angeles.
By Leah Silvieus
Victoria Chang’s The Boss (McSweeney’s 2013) is a virtuosic and intimate meditation on power in its many forms. The Boss, winner of the PEN Center Literary Award as well as a California Book Award, is as polished and self-assured as a third book should be. While there are many fine poems worth discussing in this collection, I would like to focus on the poems titled after the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1962), which make up nearly a quarter of the collection and comprise a significant part of its structural frame.
Hopper’s Office at Night appears in the title of three poems; the New York Office, Office in a Small City and Automat all appear twice. Chang also includes poems titled after Conference at Night and Chair Car. Much of Hopper’s oeuvre reveals figures gazing out windows – or gazing at each other unable to connect emotionally, which is solitude of a different kind. These paintings often place us as viewers into position of voyeurs who are happening upon Hopper’s figures just before or after something important occurs. We feel the tension between these individuals and the outside world that they gaze upon; we are not invited to engage fully, but at the same time, we are tempted to linger. The brilliance of Chang’s poems, however, lies in how they return the painting’s gaze, thus inviting the reader from the position of voyeur to witness:
“[…] from the front the building looks
like a giant spreadsheet there would be
thousands of rectangles
thousands of workers staring out like
little numbers waiting to be shifted up
shifted down summed up averaged
deleted” (“Edward Hopper’s Office in a Small City” p. 37)
The readers become those gazing back at the spreadsheet of office windows, alongside the speaker, as if it were in our power to sum the workers up, average them – delete them. “They are waiting on us – what will we do?” the poem seems to ask.
Chang also invites the reader into the position of witness as she transposes the figures in Hopper’s paintings into scenes of the speaker’s history, as she does in her second “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night.” The end of the poem segues into an intimate and personal discussion of the legacy of power: “I hear my two-year-old fighting / with someone in her crib she is bossing // someone around no no no bad that’s mine you don’t take / mine […]”, and later in the same poem, “[…] I hear her singing happy birthday to / me happy birthday to me she is already celebrating / herself she will be the perfect boss.”
Chang’s deft use of enjambment, slant rhymes and plays on words embody the tension between the figures in the poems, between interior and public life, between the individual and her relationship to structures of power. She walks courageously into the difficult terrain of the tension between power’s effects on others and our own desire for it: “my four-year-old daughter still / listens to me I am the boss and I like it I / see why the boss likes it,” she writes in “The Boss Wears a White Vest.” Later, in “The Boss Rises,” she comments: “we / can be bosses too can hold the cross but / there is a cost.”
Then, Chang reminds us, there are some powers that we are helpless to control altogether, which she captures in “I Once Was a Child”: “my father lost his words to a stroke / a stroke of bad luck stuck his words / used to be so worldly […]” Little, if anything, is lastingly ours:
“[…] my blood has nowhere to go trapped in this
cavity circling and reassuring itself chasing
itself until one day it will rush out and
never look back” (“Some Days One Day”)
The landscape of power that Chang presents in The Boss is, at times, quite grim; however, her playfulness and prosodic virtuosity reminds us that we need not live quietly desperate. While Hopper may have given us windows from which to gaze out, Chang’s poems give us the hammer to break through.
Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/
By Micah Tasaka
Talking to High Monks in the Snow, by Lydia Minatoya, is an autobiographical novel about the challenges a Japanese American woman faces to understand the multiplicity of her identities while attempting to connect to her cultural and ancestral roots and seeking to stabilize her career. The book questions what it means to belong to or feel connected with one’s self while trying to balance one’s place in the world. In Lydia’s world, she had no access to what it meant to be Japanese. Aside from her family, Lydia did not meet a Japanese American person until she was twenty years old. As an adult, she travels to various homelands in search of an identity and direction. She speaks of having a divided identity. She says, “I am a woman caught between the standards of East and West.” To deal with this, she decides to travel between the two, constantly searching for where she belongs. Ultimately, Minatoya finds that self-discovery is a journey in which one is molded through the process of going.
First, Minatoya talks about the qualities she was taught since childhood that an Asian American woman should have. She speaks about her upbringing in Albany, New York. Young Minatoya tries to understand the expectations put on her as a Japanese American woman through the only source she has to navigate that world, her mother. However, her mother, Okaa-chan, has a fractured identity of her own because she grew up without knowing her mother. When she was very young and still living in Japan, Okaa-chan’s parents divorced. As a result, Okaa-chan was not allowed to see her mother for the rest of her life. Coming from this type of fractured femininity that trickles for generations, Minatoya gives snips of conversations between her and her mother. In one conversation, Okaa-chan explains, “My father gave me an okoto to teach me to cherish my womanhood…the notes are delicate yet there is resonance. Listen. You will learn about timelessness and strength. Listen. You will understand how, despite sorrow, heart and spirit can fly.” Okaa-chan is trying to teach her daughter about the qualities an Asian American woman should value. She wants her daughter to be able to withstand many hardships while remaining elegant and having depth. Minatoya comments, “An American daughter, I cannot understand the teachings of my mother’s okoto. Instead, I listen to the music of her words.” Because she is American, she cannot grasp the cultural connection her mother speaks of. She has been divided from that part of herself. However, through loving her mother, she establishes a connection to her culture, which she is able to revisit later in life.
In addition to lessons of endurance and elegance, Minatoya is also taught that an Asian American woman must be clever if she is to survive in the world. When Okaa-chan is writing young Lydia’s name in Japanese (Yuri), she explains that there are two ways to draw the characters. One way of writing Yuri means “clever” while the other means “lily flower.” Young Lydia questions why her mother decided to name her clever rather than after a beautiful flower. Her mother says, “Too many flowers already. In America, it is better to prepare a child to be clever – to be open to the world, to accept imagination, to see the unseen. A flower girl gets picked. A flower girl gets trampled. A clever girl gets prize.” Okaa-chan wants her daughter to be resilient while still willing to take chances and allow herself to experience the world around her. She wants her daughter to be an active participant in her own life instead of a girl who is acted upon and walked all over. She is preparing her for the world to come.
Instilled with these qualities, Lydia moves into adulthood where these values are challenged. Minatoya excels in college, receives her doctorate, and moves to Boston to begin her teaching career. Though optimistic with her new position, Minatoya learns that she is only one of four Asian women working in her field at her university. However, Minatoya’s position is soon compromised. Lydia was hired while the university was going through an accreditation process. It was suggested that her department could “benefit from a more ethnically diverse faculty.” Once the school received its accreditation, she is conveniently let go. Lydia felt used but also relieved; she was never sure that teaching was for her. Teaching was a simple opportunity presented to her, not a conscious career choice. Lydia needed to discover herself before she could settle down with a career. So, instead of letting this setback destroy her, she takes action. She is encouraged by her friend, Moe, who said, “Go on and travel. Go on, just for a change of scene. You’ll see. Gonna be you that changes. Indeed, indeed. Gonna be you.” Moe was exactly right. Lydia sets off to travel to Asia to discover her roots.
To further her understanding of herself, Lydia travels to Japan to meet her relatives. She says, “I am not an adventurous person. I am the sort who hesitates at the brink of escalators, reluctant to relinquish terra firma.” She admits her fears and cautious spirit but does not let these hinder her and steps out in search of some connection to guide her. After traveling around Japan for some time, Minatoya finally connects with her family. She meets many of her family members and often feels displaced because, even though she is of their bloodline, she still feels awkwardly American and struggles to understand herself because of her Asian American identity. Then, she meets the patriarch of her family in Japan. At first, she believes he does not like her because she is traveling with a man who is not her husband. Then, after much silence, the patriarch takes out a six hundred year old scroll containing the lineage of Lydia’s family. Her family is the oldest traceable line in the region. Minatoya says, “For the first time, the old man looked at me. He turned and studied my face. For a long and breathless time, his keen eyes seized and held me. ‘This is who you are,’ he said. ‘Remember and be proud.’” This experience shows her that her elder accepts her as part of the family and approves of her, which makes her connection to her culture more tangible and real. This powerful acceptance from her family boosts Minatoya’s confidence and helps establish her roots. Because of this, she is able to start teaching again and accepts a teaching job in Japan.
After some time in Japan, she accepts a teaching position in China as a professor of American language and culture. While there, she works with a classroom of students who spend much time asking her about life in America. She is no longer among her people and is seen as an American. However, her students still wonder about her bi-cultural identity. A student asks her, “‘You are American Japanese. Can such babies honor their parents? Can they grow strong and straight? Or do they grow strong but misshapen, bowing between East and West winds? Or perhaps, do they snap?” Minatoya responds, “My mother told me that in America children could grow to be like the bamboo. Bowing between competing winds, the tree grows strong and flexible. It will not snap…But in some ways the bamboo is a fragile tree. It needs to grow in groves. By itself, the bamboo is a lonely tree for, inside, it is hollow…Perhaps this is what I have found. In Japan. In China. Here with you my dear dear friends.” She finds that it does not matter which place she calls her home because she creates a home in the people she holds space with. For the rest of the book, Minatoya surrounds herself with people who are familiar and comfortable. She travels with her home and finds comfort and connection wherever she is. She leaves China to go to Nepal on vacation with a group of friends.
In Nepal, Minatoya is treated as a traveler. This differs from her experiences in China and Japan where she is treated as a resident. Because of this, the Nepali people often read her as an American with similar features to themselves. Once again, she is made to question what it means to be American. She says, “The Western mind tries to seize ungraspable experience. Like gold miners panning a stream for shattered reflections of the sun, we search for the flow of experience, sorting its shadowy play of patterns into object that can be held and owned and trusted enough to be loved.” Nepal teaches her that in order to form identity, one must flow through the experience instead of forcing the experience to happen. Lydia lets go of her desire to control the world around her. Experiences cannot be owned like objects; a person has to absorb their experiences into their identities. She stops struggling and takes in the lessons she learns instead of trying to seek them out. By this time, Minatoya has matured enough to know that one’s identity is, ultimately, built by experience rather than subscriptions to other people’s ideas of how a person should act or what they should value. Identity and experience are intrinsically tied to one another. There is not only one way of being or a single identity. Minatoya is able to bridge her identities divided between the East and the West because her experiences have taught her that she is complex. She can have multiple identities and be able to navigate many worlds as a result.
As Lydia returns to the United States, her lessons take full form. She begins to study ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. Though the end result of well-crafted ikebana is gentle and delicate, her Sensei, Keiko-Sensei, shows her that the flowers must be swiftly hacked and maneuvered, without mercy. When Lydia tries to bend her flowers with as much command as Keiko-Sensei, her branches crumble and become disfigured. Keiko-Sensei, seeing her struggle, takes the branch and twists it into a beautiful art piece. Lydia says, “And gradually I learn that what seems like roughness instead is honest intimacy. A real mother does not do her caretaking through a series of artful poses. And eventually my flowers cease to cringe and crumple at my touch.” Through the journey of self-discovery, Minatoya learns that sometimes, in order to become a true work of art, one must be molded, painfully and without delicacy. It is through this process that Minatoya finds herself. After being woven and bent through her travels across the world, she comes home to America to learn that what she was looking for was always inside of her; it just needed to be formed. She ends with, “Like a missionary, I was sent to light a candle deep in the wilderness. But the wilderness lit a candle deep in me.” For Minatoya, the journey is what shaped her, ignited her, and taught her about who she is.
As someone who, throughout the book, seems to challenge herself and go where she must in spite of her fears, Minatoya still describes herself as being afraid of change. She says:
Change unnerves me. Behind every opportunity lurks the possibility of my undoing. Was I now Asian? Was I still America? Would I have to choose between the two? While I had been living in Asia, Asia had begun living in me. She pulsed through my heart. She traveled through my bloodstream. She changed my perceptions, my thoughts, and my dreams. Like a mother who kisses her bruised daughter and shoos her back to play, Asia had transformed the ache of my lapsed career.
And indeed transformed Lydia, too. As a child, she grasped all around her for some foothold in which she might understand herself. She then grows into an adult weathered by experience. Although she still seeks to understand herself in a vast array of complexities, she allows the experience to change her and move her and in that process is able to discover herself and her life purpose. Through Minatoya’s work, readers can learn not to base identity on other people’s ideas and expectations but rather base identity on one’s journey of self-discovery through life experience.
Micah Tasaka is a queer biracial poet from the Inland Empire exploring the intersections of identity, spirituality, gender, and sexuality. Their work seeks to make a playground of religious myths while creating queerer deities. They received their undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside. They have performed throughout Southern California and have featured in Riverside, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Palm Springs. Their debut chapbook, Whales in the Watertank, was self-published in 2014. They have been featured on The California Journey of Women Writers literary blog, and their work can also be found in the upcoming In The Words Of Women 2016 anthology.
By Kenji C. Liu
Often, to write about something in English is to attempt to circumscribe it, to make of it a describable thing. So when asked to write something about “mongrel poetics” I wasn’t sure how to do so and I’m still not sure. But that’s fine. So let’s start this by saying outright that this is a tentative tract about something that has existed, changed, and continues to mutate. This is a strategic bracketing that will necessarily need to be unbracketed.
By now, many poets who spend time on the internet have probably noticed the Boston Review’s series on racism in US avant-garde poetics and the anti-racist/anti-colonial poetry manifestos of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG). Both are critiques of the self-centered longevity of racism and white privilege in US avant-garde (and certainly other kinds of) poetry, whose most recent and tiring manifestation was seen in Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy, a white appropriation of Brown’s corpse.
The basics of the Boston Review conversation can be found online, so no need for me to repeat what has already been knowledgeably said. What I really want to look at is MCAG, or rather the possibilities their manifestos open up. Of the MCAG’s messages, these can be found at their website, Twitter feed, and Harriet the blog.
MCAG employs the strategic use of high intensity critique to interesting effect. In my view, it’s a recognition that more polite forms of engagement often go unheard. Politeness and respectability are the entry fees to middle-class whiteness, preconditions one must meet before whiteness deigns to listen. It’s a privileged refusal to listen unless the other submits to civilized (colonial) terms of conversation. MCAG is a refusal of that refusal, as well as a firm, sharp poke into the nest.
What might “mongrel poetics” look like? Is there a connection to feminist avant-garde poet Mina Loy and her poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”? Perhaps. Loy’s manifestos and don’t-fence-me-in life seems to echo a found-familial relationship with MCAG. Elizabeth A. Frost, in her chapter “Crisis in Consciousness: Mina Loy’s “‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’” in The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, describes “Loy’s mongrel poetics [as an attempt] to breed feminist politics from racist and patriarchal rhetoric…. [a]dopting overwriting to mock.” There seems to be a lineage here of some kind.
Like much of Loy’s writings, some avant-garde poetics takes as its task the interruption of dominant and oppressive language and institutions through the innovation of language interventions. The practitioners of these interventions often have feminist, anti-racist, and/or queer commitments—for example, Myung Mi Kim or Bhanu Kapil. For an excellent scholarly consideration on this topic, see Nest and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (2015, Kelsey Street Press).
What I appreciate about MCAG is that they open a space for a kind of non-prescriptive ferocity for anyone who wishes to take it up for themselves. In a recent panel called “Mongrel Poetiks” at CalArts &Now 2015 conference, the four presenters were extremely varied in their approaches, ranging from trauma release-based exorcism to vibrant academic mic drops. Whether gentle or militant in tone, this ferocity is immersed in anti-racist, anti-colonial politics.
Of course, there are those who are put off by MCAG. The problem with the way whiteness generally “reads” anti-racist tracts, no matter what the tone, is that it takes everything as a personal attack rather understanding itself within a system of institutionalized ugliness. So no matter how nuanced the analysis presented, whiteness whispers “you’re being called a horrible human being” and the conversation is over. This then allows everything from basic defensiveness (assertion of personal innocence or goodness) to refusing to be outraged that a black man is shot and killed every 28 hours. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to have actual substantive conversations.
So rather than the question of whether the MCAG is right or wrong in its approach or whether their critique is somehow a personal attack, how about a more interesting question? Assuming we believe racism, colonialism, and other oppressions should end (one should never assume), what does a “mongrel poetics” call for in our writing? If we hold ourselves accountable to an unjust system that impacts everyone asymmetrically—in many cases, through various kinds of death—how must our poetics change and erupt? Can we radically push language and form without losing ourselves in post-modern relativity and irrelevance? To riff off of Bhanu Kapil, can our writing generate, in whatever way possible, a deep “mongrel cry?”
Kenji C. Liu‘s writing appears in The American Poetry Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Pinch, Asian American Literary Review, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, RHINO, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, and several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and Community of Writers at SV, he holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation.